I occasionally use a Kindle for reading, but my first choice is always to hold a real, old fashioned book in my hands, turn the pages manually and sometimes catch a whiff of printer’s ink. Same with newspapers and magazines. The Kindle has it's one or two advantages, but most of the time the more comfortable choice for me is the paper version. Early on Tuesday I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s new book, 1Q84. Dazzling in its content and achievement, physically it was one of the most difficult books to read of my life. 2.9 pounds with 944 pages and measuring 9.4 x 6.3 x 2 inches, for all its elegant design, Knopf’s English version is nowhere near a comfortable handful. The original Japanese version is in three separate volumes comfortable to hold and read without distracting thoughts of heaviness and strained wrists. Underneath a fascination with the story I kept wishing I could read the book on my Kindle.
In a word, 1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece. Halfway through the book it occurred to me that it might well be the work that one day brings the number of Japanese Nobel laureates to three. 1Q84 is the crown jewel in an already impressive body of work from Murakami, a huge and multilayered work showing off his talents like never before. The book has everything that makes a reader turn pages, unable to pull away from the characters, the story or its complex parallel worlds.
Don’t look for sushi, the Ginza, Mt Fuji and sake in 1Q84. Instead it is a story filled with a mosaic of references to Sonny & Cher, Isak Dinesen, Faye Dunaway, Marcel Proust and a dozen others played against a soundtrack by Leoš Janáček and Duke Ellington. Characters are as likely to raise the question of a line from Chekhov as they are the psychology of Carl Jung. The variety and color of Murakami’s comparisons and allusions are one of the joys of 1Q84, and ultimately the breadth of sophistication and complexity is breathtaking. Yet beneath all that is a clear and simple prose style that is never for a moment obscure or pretentious.
A young woman named Aomame—a trainer at a sports club who moonlights as a skilled assassin—sets the story in motion on an April afternoon in 1984 when she exits a taxi on a congested elevated highway in central Tokyo and climbs to street level down an emergency staircase. In the time it takes her to reach the street, the reality of her world makes a subtle shift. She suddenly is able to name unfamiliar music, policemen wear different uniforms and carry a different type of gun and news reports speak of events never heard of. Most ominous of all are the two moons hanging over Tokyo. Aomame calls this new world 1Q84, the Q standing for ‘question.’ Gradually we begin to see that Aomame’s defining problem is not her dubious profession, but a loneliness that began in childhood, an emptiness broken only once momentarily by fleeting contact with a boy named Tengo Kawana, a fifth grade classmate. That time is deeply etched in memory and Aomame is certain they are destined to meet again.
The novel’s chapters alternate between Tengo and Aomame and as the plot progresses, events draw the two together. Tengo is a math teacher-aspiring novelist and through an editor he knows, is encouraged to rewrite a first novel by a high school girl, a story called Air Chrysalis that appears on the surface to be a fantasy. It turns out that the story is not fantasy at all but the true experiences of the girl in a secret religious cult. Her own father is the Leader and with her escape from the cult brings powerful forces into play that make doubtful a reunion of Aomame and Tengo. Aomame too has a connection with Leader that puts her on a perilous road.
Throughout this long novel the reader never for a moment loses sight of Aomame and Tengo as flesh and blood characters whose fears and dreams fuel our drive to keep turning pages. Our connection to these two is only enhanced by the appearance of a third horribly effective character named Ushikawa. To these rich characterizations add Murakami’s skill in imbuing his story with suspense worthy of John le Carré.
In an earlier book titled Underground, Murakami left readers with the promise of a future fictional story on the subject of cults. 1Q84 is that story. Two cults play a part, one a Christian sect known as the Society of Witnesses, whose proselytizing members lead lives of somber tunnel vision devoted to God. The second cult is remindful of the dangerous Aum Shinrikyo group of the early 80s. Murakami calls his cult Sakigake, translating as “forerunner” or “precursor.” His main character in 1Q84 rejected the Christian sect of her family and as an adult is sought after by henchmen of the Sakigake cult. Much of Aomame’s sojourn in the world of two moons is a tense dodge down dangerous highways.
If Haruki Murakami is a stranger to your bookshelves, now is definitely the time to reach out and sample the magic of his fiction. It is abundantly clear only two weeks after an English language release of 1Q84 that this is one that will be talked about right on through a long list of nominations and awards, continuing for a long time to come.